Strolling across the University of Richmond’s campus on a sunny morning after spring break, it was easy to be swept away by a bright sea of tulips, but many students traveling to UR Downtown had another ‘t’ on their mind. Like the city’s CPAs, they were thinking of tax returns.

For the sixth year, UR Downtown partnered with the metroCASH Coalition, a program of United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg, to serve as one of 13 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites throughout the Greater Richmond region. The VITA program offers free tax assistance to individuals and families earning under $54,000, educates clients on filing for special credits such as Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and Credit for the Elderly or the Disabled, and connects clients to additional financial services.

"This program allows students to gain valuable customer service experience that will prepare them for life after college," said Cara Cardotti, metroCASH program director. "Students are also able to see first-hand how important a tax refund can be to a family."

UR Downtown’s VITA site volunteers came largely from the classes of dedicated faculty partners: Dr. Ray Slaughter’s Federal Tax I and Federal Tax II, Dr. Joyce van der Laan Smith’s Introduction to Financial Accounting classes, and Drs. Holly Blake and Melissa Ooten’s WILL* Colloquium.

After undergoing the proper training to become a VITA CASH Coach, a Greeter, or an IRS-Certified Tax Preparer, 78 students helped UR Downtown complete the most returns of any site in the coalition this year, filing 420 returns, returning $321K in total refunds and $104K in Earned Income Tax Credits.

Six years ago, when UR Downtown itself was in its infancy and lacked so much as a sign on their front door, the site filed 30 tax returns. While still the highest of the new sites that year, its numbers were far below those of the more established locations and only a sliver of their most recent showing.

"To get from there to 313 last year, and now to 420, is huge," said Richmond Families Initiative and UR Downtown program director Kim Dean-Anderson. "And, 78 is the highest number of students that have participated. We had 20 students the very first tax season working through an independent study with Dr. Ray Slaughter, who has been our partner from the very beginning."

Thanks to word-of-mouth and the power of repeat customers, UR Downtown’s client base steadily grew over the years, with clients calling as soon as tax season started. More than anything, such exponential growth is a testament to the deepening partnerships between UR Downtown, metroCASH, and its partners.

Discussing the twelve-hour certification process required to become an IRS-Certified Tax Preparer, Dean-Anderson affirms her profound appreciation for metroCASH, who offered this two-day training for two consecutive weekends.

"Thanks to the incredible generosity of metroCASH, we were able to offer two proctored exams on Sundays," Dean-Anderson said. "Having the opportunity for students to take [the exam] in the classroom and have the instructor there was a huge benefit."

In solidifying their relationship with metroCASH, a connection between UR Downtown and the Virginia Credit Union (VACU), a metroCASH partner, blossomed as well. CASH Coaches often make recommendations for other financial services when clients come for tax help.

"The three most requested services clients ask about are budgeting, credit management, and credit reports, which are all workshops that VACU offers," Dean-Anderson said. "VACU was willing to train our CASH coaches, which added to their credibility when they recommended clients use the workshops."

In addition to over 30 workshops aimed at families and heads of household, VACU also offers a Smart Start curriculum meant for K-12 students that is free and accessible on their website. When she first learned of this resource, Dean-Anderson found herself asking, "What would it mean if we were able to use that curriculum for UR students to teach K-12 students about financial literacy?" With this question in mind, Financial Literacy Corps was born, and UR student volunteers taught VACU’s financial education curriculum at three Bonner Center for Civic Engagement partner sites this semester with the hopes of expanding in the years to come.

"Sylvia [Watford] at Virginia Credit Union has been an amazing partner – anything we asked, she was willing to try," Dean-Anderson said. "It’s fun to think and dream with her, because she’s very open to what’s possible. VACU has a focus on making these things available to the public and the community more broadly, not just to members of the credit union."

Of these strengthened partnerships with metroCASH and VACU, Dean-Anderson said, "There’s more on the horizon. We’re already dreaming about bigger and better, and about more ways to deepen our partnership. There’s more to come!"